Interactive Fiction: Story-Wrestling with AI Dungeon

Someone on Mastodon shared out that a new interactive fiction game app – AI Dungeon — was free for a limited time (still is, as far as I know, for now), so I took the plunge and tried it out. It’s quite fascinating, as the AI software brain spins an elaborate story from your text-based responses, questions, actions. There were some basic themes built into the game but I decided to test out a more open-ended option and set my story of a musician/spy into motion.

Here was the initial story set-up I set into motion:

You are a traveling musician who has been sent to spy on a neighboring kingdom. The road you travel brings you through many small villages. You meet many other musicians, and maybe more than a few spies. What do you do?

As I understand it, after a bit of research and computation, the AI brain sends story narrative back based on its interpretation of my actions within the game. Hints in the game suggest that more complex the user language/words are, the more the AI will learn and adapt to the story.

Interestingly, there were definitely times when I could feel the AI tugging my story into its known corners — I ended up in a cave a few times — as opposed to truly letting my activities guide the story forward on its own path. The AI writing itself was remarkable coherent, for the most part, although sometimes, when it either provided dialogue or used mine, things got a bit convoluted in the context of who was speaking.

The developer site explains (and deeper technical explanation here):

AIDungeon2 is a first of its kind AI generated text adventure. Using a 1.5B parameter machine learning model called GPT-2 AIDungeon2 generates the story and results of your actions as you play in this virtual world.
Unlike virtually every other game in existence, you are not limited by the imagination of the developer in what you can do. Any thing you can express in language can be your action and the AI dungeon master will decide how the world responds to your actions.

It took me some time to find a rhythm of my own, to stay true to my sense of character (actually, I’m still doing that as I keep playing) — I’d have them (me?) pull out a guitar or saxophone or harmonica, now and then, and use music to discover mystery — and not let the AI be the one in charge of the story. It was a bit of story-wrestling, in a fun way.

At this moment (as I write this blog post), this is what happened after I played my saxophone:

You play the saxophone, which causes the water around you to ripple slightly. Suddenly, a bright light shines through the hole in the rocks. You look out into darkness and see a tall figure emerge from the cave entrance. It’s face is covered with black hair and its skin is pale white.

After a few mornings of “playing the story,” I still had not gotten too far into where my character was actually going and trying to do (other than spy), and why they were going there, although I had met my fair share of interesting characters (again, some seemed to have been yanked from some other game world into my own) and entered some intriguing rooms. I broke mirrors, used keys, sent messages via guitar string, ran from one person and found another person, took a horse for a ride, and more — all with text-based storytelling, guided by AI database.

I’d love to see where AI Dungeon goes. It’s still being developed and the brothers behind the company hope to fund their project through Patreon. I can’t afford the $5 month, their lowest tier (I wish there were something even lower, but I feel like a cheapskate even suggesting that), but if there’s a way to keep playing and supporting a version, I’ll do it.

You can read my story from a link generated by the app (you don’t seem to need the app to read the story, which is helpful).

Peace (playing it),

Further Defining Digital Literacies: Narrative Disruption and Story Amplification

Defining Digital Literacies NCTE narrativesI’m slowly reading and digesting, the National Council of Teachers of English revised definition of Literacy in a Digital Age, and I am appreciating the depth of the inquiry.

Words have power. Stories have power. Who gets to tell those stories with those words wields power, and shapes the narratives. A critical look at this truth of storytelling is the center of the section of the definition of Digital Literacies where the use of multi-modal narratives either hem or cloud in our understanding of the diverse world, or open it up to new views.

This particular section of the NCTE document (second to last section) focuses on providing our students with access, understanding and use of digital tools — from audio, to video, to game design, to image, to words, to whatever we can’t yet imagine — to tell and share their own stories in meaningful ways in digital spaces as well as critique others. (There is a token nod to ‘print-based literacies,’ too). There’s a bit too much educational jargon in this section for my tastes but I still appreciate the depth of the thinking and the phrase of “heightened awareness” rings true.

The definition section here also hints at understanding the pros and cons of these various digital tools, in ways these tools might expand our sense of self and community — for example, how visuals might add an emotional impact a story — and maybe work to inhibit these same aspects, too — so how visuals might emotionally impact a story, but with false heartstrings.

This passage stood out for me, too:

“Learners also need sustained opportunities to produce counter-narratives that expose and interrupt misguided texts that do not represent the fullness of their identities or life complexities. “

The phrases of “misguided texts” is both powerful — yes, to countering destructive narratives that misinform us — and troublesome — who determines what text is “misguided” and needs disrupting? And how does one teach that kind of lens without shaping our students’ world in our own set of values? I suppose we teachers accomplish this by making sure our students question everything, even us, with a critical eye, but particularly, to question those texts that focus on their own heritage, their own language, their own customs and religions, their own communities.

The next sentence also helps answer this question, too, by noting that

“… learners need opportunities within the curriculum to author multimodal stories in order to examine power, equity, and identities and grow as digitally savvy and civic-minded citizens.”

Literacies are a key to the world. Stories can unlock the doors, or bar them shut. Honing literary techniques to tell our stories and to parse through the stories of others is a key skill in the digital age we live in. We could all practice more of that.

Peace (disruption),

Book Review: Emmy in the Key of Code

With Kwame Alexander as a mentor and inspiration, author Aimee Lucido has crafted a beautifully-written free verse novel with Emmy in the Key of Code that artistically embeds computer coding into story narrative. This is hard to explain, for while there are books that using computer code as a narrative hook during this STEM/STEAM push, here, Lucido (herself a technology insider) pushes that even farther, using scripts and code as a way to dig deeper into Emmy, a newcomer struggling to find friends.

There is all sorts of Java script used, as Emmy learns about the beautiful underpinnings of code, and as she experiences and filters a complicated world through If/While/Then statements, Boolean numbers, brackets and commands, and all of the terminology and concepts of logic and design. Some of the later pages of the story are powerful in this regard, where elements of the story are written as raw computer code, as Emmy grapples with some difficult topics in her life.

I think this merging of programming and narrative is intriguing, and it never feels forced in Emmy in the Key of Code. It feels like a natural fit for Emmy’s story, and the use of free verse poetic writing gives Lucido plenty of room for story innovation, and she takes advantage of that right from the start.

This free verse novel would be a nice fit in any upper elementary or middle school classroom, and might provide a nice roadway into computer programming. I wonder how we might inspire students who have some knowledge of computers to write stories in this vein, where the coding architecture becomes the narrative frame?

Peace (010101010),

Write Out Twitter Analysis (Part Three): Where The Hashtags Meet

WriteOut CrossHashTags ALLI’m trying to take a closer look at what happened on Twitter with the Write Out project in October through network analysis. I’ve shared out the nodes and clusters and edges of the two-week project and then dove into the timeline of user activity. Today, I want to look at how the #writeout hashtag connected with other hashtags.

This is important because of the cross-pollination effect. What I mean is that when a user with affiliation to different affinity networks makes connections through hashtag combining, it potentially expands the various networks. So when a participant in #writeout includes the #nwp or #findyourpark hashtag, now all people who follow the #nwp and #findyourpark hashtags see the content of #writeout.

Purposeful cross-pollination of content across hashtags in a single tweet is a powerful megaphone. So what do we notice with this kind of analysis, done with the Tableau software?

WriteOut CrossHashTags Top10 (2)

First, the obvious. The Write Out project is supported and hosted by the National Writing Project (and the National Park Service) so the #nwp tag makes sense, as does the #clmooc tag. CLMOOC (Connected Learning MOOC) was an earlier initiative of NWP, and folks in CLMOOC (like me) step easily into projects like Write Out, which is built on similar foundation of connected learning principles.

Second, there are plenty of hashtag connections to the National Day on Writing, which makes sense, since we planned Write Out with the NDOW timing in mind, and made many explicit invitations to NDOW folks to think about place for their writing.

You may notice the variations of the NDOW hashtags, such as #whyiwrite and #ndow, though, as no one single hashtag ever surfaced. There are also hashtags affiliated with NWP sites, who were sharing within their own smaller network while also drawing lines to the larger initiatives.

The one hashtag, and the activity seems substantial, that surprises me is the #savedbythepbl one. I don’t remember seeing it in the #writeout stream all that often during our two weeks in October, although project-based-learning (I think that is the PBL referenced) and place-based-learning (another PBL) have many overlaps, and perhaps the folks who use that hashtag were exploring and creating in sync with Write Out in a way that wasn’t visible at the time. As a Write Out facilitator, though, I am making notes about remembering that hashtag for next year. Those folks were doing something.

Other smaller hashtag clusters like #dance and #grafitti and #onthisday are ones I am not sure about, in regards to connection analysis. It may be that some daily prompt or activity caught someone’s attention. Or it may be that there was overlapping sharing going on, invitations within affinity networks that went beyond what we were seeing. That’s what we hope is always happening. This kind of deeper look makes some, but not all, of that more visible.

Peace (pollination),

When A Stumble Goes Viral

Fail flickr photo by clasesdeperiodismo shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

My son was running an event he had not run before at his high school indoor track meet the other day. We were cheering him on — he’s fast — when he took a turn and began to stumble. He fell to the track but then muscled his way back to his feet and crossed the finish line, unhurt but very frustrated.

The next day, he told us that a friend on the track team had been shooting video of his race, caught the stumble, and had remixed the footage for Tik Tok. My son said he was fine with it. The video clip does not show my son’s face or any other identifying features. It’s shot from the back. Strangely, the friend edited the video to indicate to the audience in the opening frame it was him (the friend) in the video. Maybe this was to protect my son’s privacy.

“It has over 120,000 views,” my son told us that first night, the day after the race, showing us the clip on Tik Tok. Yesterday, the second day, I asked about it. “It has over 250,000 views and 5,000 likes,” he told me.

He’s proud of this Tik Tok trending, but I’m not so sure about it.

First of all, there’s the “asking permission” factor in this whole story, where the friend posted the video and only then later showed it to my son. No one should be asked afterwards, even if the track meet was in a public space. That’s just wrong.

Second, there’s this fascination with views and likes that drives me batty, as if that were social capital that has tangible value (it really doesn’t, unless you are creating a company that needs eyeballs for advertising and exposure). I’ve written about this before, quite a bit, and noted how this aspect of social media is really a way for the companies to sell advertising and to track user data.

Third, this whole notion that Fail Videos are what can get the most of our collective attention bothers me to no end, that we mock the stumbles of others for entertainment. I realize that Nice Videos don’t have the same impact on our brain — sort of how we notice and remember only the bad in the world, not the good. But to see that part of our shared humanity on display so vividly, and with such popularity, is a particularly negative reflection on who we are, as a people.

My son is unconcerned with all of this. (Note: I have scanned through the Tik Tik trending videos the last few days — while I have viewed some questionable content and some strange things, and yes, some amusing clips, I have not seen the video of my son’s track fail on the public trending page.)

While I’m proud that he is so resilient – that the frustration on the track did not spill over to seeing his mistake play out on social media — I still wish he and his whole generation would shake loose the notions of viral videos being something worth striving for. It may be like shouting in the void, but we have to keep our warning voices loud anyway.

Someday, they’ll hear us.

Peace (gone viral),

Further Defining Digital Literacies: The Ethics of Information Creation

Defining Digital Literacies NCTE ethics

I’m slowly reading and digesting, and appreciating, the National Council of Teachers of English revised definition of Literacy in a Digital Age, and I am appreciating the depth of the inquiry.

The theme I am exploring today is all about the ethics behind creating, posting and sharing content, and the moral obligations of the writers and artists and makers who feed word and art into those network spaces. What an important topic, and one, too long ignored.

As a teacher, I often have conversations with my young students about what they are sharing and why. This year, it’s Tik Tok. Last year, it was Instagram. Before that, it was (which became Tik Tok, in the strange recursive nature of the technology world).  Before that, it was Vine. You get the point. Most of my students readily admit that they hit “send” or “post” without thinking twice about what they are sending forward, and to whom, doing it on a whim.

All of us, adults and children alike, have transformed into this vast snake of forward motion, it seems, and it is right in this corridor of shadows and thoughtless sharing, that fake news and hidden-meaning-memes and other nefarious things flourish and prosper, creating a cloud of negativity and darkness in the networks we all use, together.

We see this most visibly with Facebook, but also with other social networking spaces, where the system of “likes” and “shares” has social value, not the quality of information or reflective practice. When all that matters for visibility is the number of thumbs ups or stars, all that matters is for content that hits emotional nerves to be what one sends out to the world.

These guiding questions of this section of Digital Literacies are helpful to consider, and provide a guide on what topics to revisit regularly with our students:

  • Do learners share information in ways that consider all sources?
  • Do learners consider the contributors and authenticity of all sources?
  • Do learners practice the safe and legal use of technology?
  • Do learners create products that are both informative and ethical?
  • Do learners avoid accessing another computer’s system, software, or data files without permission?
  • Do learners engage in discursive practices in online social systems with others without deliberately or inadvertently demeaning individuals and/or groups?
  • Do learners attend to the acceptable use policies of organizations and institutions?
  • Do learners attend to the terms of service and/or terms of use of digital software and tools?
  • Do learners read, review, and understand the terms of service/use that they agree to as they utilize these tools?
  • Do learners respect the intellectual property of others and only utilize materials they are licensed to access, remix, and/or share?
  • Do learners respect and follow the copyright information and appropriate licenses given to digital content as they work online?

In fact, this strand could be an entire semester course on ethical writing in an online world. What if that were required for all high school students, everywhere? Would we start to finally see a shift towards the positive?

It seems to me that we have, without much thought about the consequences, bought into what social networks have told us is social capital — the likes and the shares. (Which for these businesses, is advertising data, which becomes money and profit) We, the writers and creators, need to push back, hard, on this playbook, to make visible the kinds of responsible, supportive, creative endeavors we know the promise of technology may hold.

And if a network does not bend to the will of the users, then it is time to abandon that network and find another place to connect. One thing we can say about young users is they are not afraid to jump ship when one platform no longer meets their needs (the counter to this is, they don’t often think clearly about the new ship they’ve joined). A sense of agency — that users ultimately decide what platforms will prosper and which ones will fail — is an important lesson to teach all young people growing up in close proximity of digital spaces.

This work begins now, in our classrooms, and in our homes.

Peace (flourishes in the light),